Sunday, February 28, 2010

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs...

It is 6 a.m. and as I sip my third cup of rooibos (afrikaans for red-bush tea, the local source of health and longevity) I am reflecting on our first month in Africa. We have been busy and internet has been scarce, correspondence difficult. Summer will be awake soon and coming down the stairs…groggy and seeking her earl grey…and we will watch the sunrise and discuss the day. After 4 weeks of bouncing from hostel to hostel, Summer has befriended two very kind Brits, who offered us to house-sit in their flat, and so we are spending this week in luxury…our own kitchen, fridge and bathroom, a porch overlooking the mountains and city and sky, air-conditioning (quite rare here) and all the travel books we can digest. We are relaxing like we have not since we left the comfort of home.

Comforts of home? We have found: soy milk, yoga, the mall, news about Brangelina, someone to unlock our iPhones…but the peanut butter is Jif-grade, and this leaves me questioning whether or not I'll survive the year…

One recent morning, after a run through the bush (the thickly vegetated hillsides that covers all undeveloped land throughout the city) I was told to beware…that amidst the beautiful aloe, acacia, mesquite and stones lurk snakes, leopards, and muggers. Ok, so our daily trail runs will have to be on the streets, or rather the red-dirt-and-gravel city sidewalks. After a few weeks getting oriented in Cape Town, we are now in Windhoek which, by comparison, is still 3rd-world. A city of Babel, it is made up of Europeans of different tongues, innumerable different tribes and first-generation bushmen-come-city-dwellers who are adapting to the urban environment, to varying degrees of success, it seems. The sheer difference is fascinating -- the architectural solutions that seem inspired by wild animal forms, the mix of unintelligible language, strange music, traffic and funky foreign car horns. It is all crazy at times.

As without, so within; we find this craziness wanting to seep into our internal lives and our relationship. Stress and fear can easily give way to anger and fighting. But in this, we are learning how better to work together, to figure things out in partnership, to relax and take care, and to continually recommit to loving one another.

And so it seems we are adapting, ourselves.

Essential to our coping with all of this, as we are really hillbillies at heart, we have made it a priority to explore the countryside whenever time and budget allow. The country is beautiful, littered with European-owned vineyards and safari lodges which offer accommodation from fully-furnished camping tents to five-star bungalows. As everyone must do who comes here, we are seeking the strange wildlife. Though we've seen many penguins (yes, in Africa), baboons and antelope, we still have our sights on the elephant, rhinos, lions, zebra, giraffe. And of course we are always searching for something to climb. There are plenty of mountains here -- more mountains than people to climb them -- and so it is our task to pioneer the infinite cliffs and boulder-fields that we have only yet seen in the tourist books…

One would do well to bring a GPS along when venturing the wild here. Paved roads can suddenly and unexplainably give way to gravel drives, and then dirt jeep trails, covered with tire-eating-stones and compact-car-eating-pot-holes. We have heard tales of tourists rolling their 100,000USD Land Rovers off these roads, as they are caught unaware by a crossing warthog or antelope herd sprinting across the plain. Certainly, men have been able to assert their will upon the land…but Mama Africa as she is called does seem to truly possess some unique kind of grittiness and gravitas: a rugged and threatening aire to its cities; a more vast, wild and dangerous edge to its countryside. She seems, for all human efforts exerted upon her, largely untamable; too totally large and unwieldy to ever be fully controlled. So many different peoples, languages, customs, animals, climates…so many miles (er, kilometers) between here and there…

Blissful ignorance is an impossible mind-state to hold here. One just won't survive here with an expectation of proper Western comfort, instant gratification, easiness and security…sure, it's all here, but at a price; and what you do have, surely someone else, or many many others, do not. And if you are not careful, it will get taken from you, via the mugging, burglary and pick-pocket style many African cities have become infamous for. The race/class/education/privilege disparity practically forces the 'have-nots' into crime, and in response the 'haves' build their walls higher (and then affix razor-wire, spikes, and electric fencing to them).

The legacy of oppression, inequality and apartheid (just 20-years abolished) still lingers in African culture. These same issues that we still wrestle with in America are much closer to the surface here. It is seen in the way black, white, and colored interact; their relative abilities to achieve, succeed and improve their quality of life; the unspoken animosity; the communication barriers; the tension in which the society hangs often seems capable of falling into chaos.

We often find ourselves asking: where do we fit into this issue of race and class divide? Do we perpetuate it? Do we have any power in healing this division?

Here, as anywhere, there is darkness and light. You rely on your instincts to tell you who to trust, where to go, when to leave. The beggars and "sharks" are so ubiquitous they almost become invisible. But we fight this indifference and cynicism as well. In fact, the best remedy we have found is to enter the belly of the slums, or townships, themselves; to serve these people who are so used to being servants; especially to visit with the school-children, and soak up some of that loving expression of humanity that kids own so purely. Of course, with each of these trips come its own dangers and sense of uncertainty -- even the cab-drivers are known to mug you and leave you penniless in the middle of nowhere -- but there is an exhilaration that comes from this feeling of being clearly in the minority, a bit afraid, proceeding with faith, relying on karma, luck, pluck, and often the kindness of others to safely navigate a quite foreign place.

Each night, after watching the high, hot, puffy desert clouds transform into an epic but mellow gold and purple sunset, we lie down exhausted and muse on the experiences of the day…and agree that, though difficult, this trip is worth it. We are finding, no matter where one goes, a key practice in life is adaptation; continually learning to open our hearts and minds, and renew our ability to live joyfully and love the human world around us (including each other), amidst the constant stream of positive and negative experiences, situations and interactions; to find a balance between trust and self-preservation. We suppose this is dharma, and it is infinitely challenging, and rewarding, work: to love it all.

And again, gratitude, gratitude, gratitude for all that we have -- those friends and family we miss, and the new ones we are making everyday. We hope all is well back home, and that Obama is succeeding in cleaning up the mess… :)




  1. I am truly inspired by you posts. You are both in our minds daily.

  2. You write such beautiful posts, Tommy! I wish I would have been able to reflect on my experience while I was in it - you are certainly richer for it. If it's a safari you're looking for, Schotia Safaris ( is a steal! I was lucky enough to go twice on the 'Tooth and Claw' tour (make sure to stay overnight and ask for the 'family' cabin) and it exceeded my expectations. Great to read the update, and say hi to Celson, Zenze, and Thabo for me if you ever end up hanging out!